Posted: Thursday January 8, 2004 12:43PM; Updated: Thursday January 8, 2004 12:43PM
SI.com's Marty Burns tackles three issues from around the league:
1. Is Isiah done dealing?
Answer: Apparently Monday's blockbuster trade involving Stephon Marbury might not be the last for new Knicks boss Isiah Thomas. League sources say he's still working the phones, looking for other ways to tweak his roster. Keith Van Horn and Othella Harrington are two Knicks said to be on the block, with Rasheed Wallace and even Darius Miles mentioned as possible targets.
Wallace clearly would be a major move. Blazers GM John Nash admits he has talked to Isiah about his 6-foot-11 power forward, but he's said all along he wouldn't give Wallace away simply to clean up the team's image. A deal involving Keith Van Horn, Kurt Thomas and Portland native Michael Doleac reportedly has been discussed, but Nash is said to be looking for an All-Star talent in return. Moreover, the Blazers are in a cost-cutting mode and would be loath to take Van Horn's remaining contract (two more years, $30.2 million) even if they felt he was the best they could get.
Miles might be a more realistic acquisition. The 6-9 former No. 3 overall pick has been a bust this season in Cleveland, even drawing some DNP-CDs of late, but he's still just 21 years old with mad hops. Also, his contract (one more year, $5.41 million) makes him a relatively modest risk for the deep-pockets Knicks. Thomas no doubt would much rather have center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who has been rumored to be on the trade block and whose salary matches up with Van Horn, but Cleveland GM Jim Paxson insists he has no interest in trading his 7-foot All-Star right now.
Will Isiah make another move? It seems likely. With Kurt Thomas, Doleac, Harrington and rookie point guard Frank Williams available, the Knicks have some pieces to move around. It might not be another blockbuster, but Zeke clearly won't hesitate to pull the trigger again.
2. Do the Lakers need all of the Big Four healthy to win?
Answer: Well, they need Shaq at least. After Wednesday night's loss at Denver, the once-invincible Lakers had lost four straight and eight of 11 overall. With Karl Malone (knee) on the injured list and Shaquille O'Neal hobbled (strained calf), L.A. simply has no inside game.
Kobe Bryant and Gary Payton have tried to pick up the slack in recent days. Bryant has gone for 32, 44, 20 and 27 points the past four games, while Payton has been pushing the tempo in an effort to get easier baskets. But the bottom line is Slava Medvedenko and Horace Grant just can't get it done consistently inside.
It's no surprise, of course, that any NBA team would struggle without its two star big men. Also, L.A.'s schedule of late hasn't exactly been easy. Since Dec. 12, they have lost at home to the Mavs and Rockets, and on the road to the Blazers, Warriors, Sonics (at the buzzer), Clippers, T'Wolves and Nuggets. But even before these injuries cropped up, the Lakers weren't consistently playing great defense. Shaq wasn't truly committed to stopping the pick-and-roll, and his teammates weren't always doing a good job denying penetration and getting back in transition. Moreover, these injuries have been hanging around. Malone is still a week away at best, and Shaq was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Wednesday with no clear return date in sight.
The Lakers are going to need strong supporting contributions again to win the NBA title. They can survive an injury here or there. But eventually they are going to need Bryant and some combination of Malone/Payton to get to the Finals. And, most of all, they're definitely going to need Shaq.
3. What's wrong with the Mavs?
Answer: That's what Mark Cuban wants to know. Even after Wednesday night's victory over the Warriors, Dallas' record stands at 20-14 this season. Not bad. But nothing like the 29-5 mark the Mavs brandished at the same point a year ago.
Clearly the Mavs are still trying to work newcomers Antoine Walker and Antawn Jamison into the system. They are not shooting as well, especially from beyond the three-point arc, and turnovers are up slightly. On the defensive end, their small lineup has been getting shredded. At week's end, Dallas ranked last in the NBA in points allowed (98.3) and 27th in field goal percentage allowed (44.8 percent). Last season the Mavs finished 16th and 12th, respectively, in those categories.
Also, they miss Nick Van Exel. Not only did he provide a boost off the bench, but he was a valuable shot-maker and playmaker in crunch time. It is no coincidence that the Mavs have struggled to a 4-12 mark on the road this season. Van Exel took a lot of pressure off the Big Three, and gave Dallas a swagger in hostile environments.
With seven new faces, coach Don Nelson knew it was going to take time for his team to gel. What he didn't count on was that Finley and Nowitzki would miss time early in the season with injuries, and that key reserves Eduardo Najera and Shawn Bradley would go down at the same time. It has all added up to a somewhat disappointing start.
Normally, Nelson wouldn't have to worry, but after last year's 60-win season and trip to the Western Conference finals, expectations are sky high in Big D. There have even been rumors that Cuban has his eyes on Pat Riley. Wasn't it just a few years ago that Nellie was considered a savior?